The possibility of saving Iraq as a viable Arab nation is in question,
even if American public opinion forces the withdrawal of US troops. For
some American hawks, a dismembered Iraq may not be ideal but would no
longer be a strategic threat.
Those were the morbid impressions I formed after two days of
discussions with Iraqis gathered in Amman, Jordan, at an
unprecedented meeting initiated by Code Pink and attended by
Cindy Sheehan and a smattering of peace activists that included Iraq Veterans Against the War and United
for Peace and Justice.
That so many Iraqi representatives wanted to meet with antiwar
Americans was a hopeful sign. Attending were official representatives
of the Shiite coalition now holding power, the minority Sunni bloc, the
Scholars Association, parliamentarians and torture victims from
Abu Ghraib. Their broad consensus favored a specific timetable for
American withdrawal combined with efforts to "fix the problems" of the
occupation as the withdrawal proceeds. Recent surveys show that 87
percent of Iraqis hold the same views.
Dr. Habib Jabar, carefully balancing the divisions within his majority
Shiite parliamentary bloc, stated that "we don't need American forces to
protect us from each other. We have been here 1,000 years. My
wife is a Sunni. I don't need the Americans to protect her from me." He
is seeking a Shiite consensus to demand that the United Nations
Security Council formally end its authorization of the US occupation
when it meets this December. At the same time, the US-backed Shiite
representative was diplomatically noncommittal on dissolving death
squads or the Badr
Corps now operating with little or no restraint by the Interior
Ministry. Nor did he acknowledge the plans of dominant Shiite leaders
like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim for an autonomous Shiite region running from
Baghdad south to Basra, which would require mass removals of the Sunni
Even Sunni political representatives, while demanding a timetable for
withdrawal, increasingly worry that they will be more exposed to
vengeful Shiite and Kurdish militias when the Americans leave. The Sunni
bloc representative, Salman al-Jumaili, said with frustration, "We want
the Americans out tomorrow. But we want negotiated timetables to fill
security gaps and prevent a power grab." He indicated that the
nationalist insurgency "is looking for recognition...and a
road map to ending the occupation through negotiations."
These are more nuanced positions than the demands for immediate
withdrawal that Code Pink's Medea Benjamin recalls hearing in Baghdad
street interviews three years ago. The qualified Iraqi demands for
withdrawal reflect the virtual civil war that has arisen in the wake of
the US occupation. Like victims of repeated battery, many Sunnis fear
escalating attacks on their civilian population if the streets are
dominated by the Badr militia after the Americans leave. They feel
pressured by the Americans to abandon their aspirations for a unified
Iraqi state, accept minority status in a partitioned country, or join
as partners with their American occupiers to fight against pro-Iranian
or Al Qaeda forces in Iraq.
The raging war in Lebanon has reinforced Iraqi paranoia that the United States, Britain
and Israel intend to divide the Middle East into quarreling sects.
Dr. Saleh al-Mutlaq of the Sunni-based
Iraqi National Dialogue Front, which lost 100 campaign workers in killings during last year's election, said, "Lebanon could be even easier to send into civil war than Iraq." On the other hand, the US-backed Shiite coalition in Baghdad is loudly supporting its Shiite brethren in Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Not only are the complexities mind-boggling, but the pressures on the
insurgents and Sunni organizations are beyond anything described in the
mainstream American media. For example, on the flight home I met an
American contractor with thirty years of security experience, who is a
counselor to the top Sunni official in the new Iraqi government. "There
are 10,000 or 12,000 Sunnis, mainly teachers, lawyers and
professionals, being held without charges in Iraqi prisons, and the
[Iraqi] guards are drilling holes in them," he said bitterly. Of
course, there are Sunni or foreign militias attacking the Shiite
population as well, but the Sunni minority neighborhoods bear the brunt of attack. One member of Parliament, a Sunni, told us that "half of my
friends have been kidnapped." She lives most of the year in Jordan,
returning only for parliamentary sessions.
At least 4 million Iraqis like this parliamentarian have become
refugees since 2003, with 3 million sheltered in Syria, 1 million
in Jordan and many thousands more living in various places from the United Arab
Emirates to Europe.
It is difficult to estimate to what extent all this carnage is
intentional, a cycle of revenge, blowback from the US occupation--or
all three. Iraqis at the meeting complained of their country becoming a
battleground in America's war against Syria, Iran and jihadists in
general. The US case for a divide-and-conquer strategy has been supplied
by Stephen Biddle (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006 and
July/August 2006), who advocates using military threats to maintain
leverage with both the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority. He writes
that the United States could remove the current constraints on Iraqi security
forces and provide them with tanks, armored personal carriers,
artillery, armed helicopters, and fixed-wing ground-attack aircraft,
enlarging the capacity of the Kurds and Shiites to "commit mass
violence against the Sunnis...dramatically...threatening such a change
could provide an important incentive for the Sunnis to compromise
[their withdrawal demand]."
At the same time, Biddle believes that "a US threat to cease backing
the Shiites, coupled with a program to arm the Sunnis overtly or in a
semi-clandestine way, would substantially reduce the Shiites' military
prospects." Biddle's goal would be to "keep U.S. troops in Iraq as long
as would be necessary to protect the parties who cooperate." A perfect
equilibrium for the occupiers, in other words. But for Biddle, there is
one bothersome factor: "recent polls of U.S. public opinion are not
encouraging." That could be a problem, Biddle believes, if voters can be
convinced of the importance of keeping US troops in place. "Sacrificing
U.S. lives now could save many more later, and staying is an
Biddle's worries about public opinion are justified. Few Americans
share his enthusiasm for sending troops into the midst of an Iraqi
civil war. The very phrase "civil war," delicately hinted by US
generals in recent Congressional testimony, is code for the
tipping point in Iraq. Even Thomas Friedman called for a "Plan B,"
meaning a withdrawal strategy, in the New York Times this week.
Despite all its complexity, the Iraq debate now heating up in American
politics should favor opponents of the war. The White House's insistence
on "staying the course" sounds bankrupt given the daily news from Iraq.
Antiwar candidates, alongside the peace movement, can offer a
defensible alternative, as the interviews in Amman show, including:
1. A declaration by the United States of its intention to withdraw troops within a
fixed timetable, including no permanent bases.
2. A parallel commitment to fix as many mistakes as possible in the
3. An amnesty for Iraqi nationals who have fought against the
occupation. If a US withdrawal timetable is agreed, the foreign
jihadists will lose the margin of support they currently have.
4. An end to Paul Bremer's de-Baathification policy and restoring
former military and other professionals to security and civic roles.
5. Termination of US support, training, financing or advising of
6. A paradigm shift away from neoconservative extremism toward
diplomatic and political solutions to the region's problems.
7. International efforts to rebuild Iraq after fifteen years of
sanctions, bombardment, invasion, war and civil war.
The most contentious of these points concerns amnesty for Iraqis who
have fought the occupation. But it should be remembered that the
American Civil War ended with an amnesty for Jefferson Davis. Amnesties
always are included in negotiated settlements, and this endgame looks
to be no different. If we don't achieve this, we will face a future of
faith-based militarism until, as they say, the end of days.
Tom Hayden is a member of the Nation editorial board. He has written over 100 reports on Iraq since the 2003 invasion. His most recent book is Radical Nomad, a biography of C. Wright Mills (Paradigm Publishers).
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